Musings » Norah Lindsay: life and art of a garden designer
Francis Lincoln 2007
Allyson Hayward has done a tremendous service in bringing Norah Lindsay, 1873 – 1948, into clear focus after she had been flitting about in the shadows of garden history. She appears obliquely in other people‘s biographies, especially in the myths surrounding the creation of Hidcote in Gloucestershire. Because she is just now being re-evaluated and discussed we forget that she was born 140 years ago into a world which disappeared within her lifetime.
Her family belonged to a lower stratum of the aristocracy, the Irish peerage. Her father‘s brother was the 6th Earl of Mayo. Women from that background did not do paid work or have professions. Their education was sketchy, concentrating on the decorative aspects of life, not the practical. Norah Lindsay’s transformation from a magnetically charming young lady to a hardworking professional garden designer was achieved at high cost in the second half of her life.
The amount of fully professional work she did was a revelation. The tables of Mrs Lindsay’s clients in Allyson Hayward’s book are a very valuable corrective to the notion that she was a social butterfly who popped in and out of people’s estates and puttered around in the herbaceous borders. Much of this stemmed from her very English attitude that one should never seem to be striving or making strenuous efforts in any way.
Things should just happen. Any necessary apparatus is kept carefully behind the scenes. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, with the deadline for an essay looming large, one never said “I have to go and study”. One simply said “I have to go and do a bit of work”.
Probably intentionally she gave the impression of being a fluffy amateur, not entirely serious. It was accentuated by her habit of wearing a form of fancy dress every day, brilliantly coloured tinsel-covered garments, as if ready at a moment’s notice to rush off to an exciting party.
This deceptive surface was crucial for her. She made use of her social life among the aristocracy and upper middle classes to gain commissions. Without the fees she earned this way she would have been destitute. As it was, several of her more devoted client/friends subscribed to an informal fund at the end to enable her to stay in her own small flat in London. It was a very sad story.
The beginning was very bright. Norah Lindsay’s mother was a beautiful, accomplished and very shrewd woman. Her goal was the age-old one of getting her daughters safely married to proper husbands. To that end she bent her not inconsiderable social and personal skills: charm, wit, beauty and oh so delicate calculation. Emmie Bourke understood the value of making lasting friendships with titled and wealthy people.
At the time Harry Lindsay seemed to be the perfect person for Norah. His grandfather was an earl and he had a very wealthy cousin in the peerage. He was smitten with Norah and Mrs Bourke stage managed the affair with consummate skill. The cousin, Lord Wantage, gave the young couple the manor of Sutton Courtenay as a wedding present. The first ten years of their lives together were idyllic.
Some years later when Norah’s father died, her mother married the 5th earl of Clarendon, of course after a suitable interval. Mrs Bourke always landed on her feet. Edward VII was one of her devoted admirers. She played him very carefully and there was no hint of gossip.
Her daughter took after her in many respects. Norah inherited Emmie’s beauty and musical gifts, reaching a very high level of performance. What she seems to have lacked was a strong enough sense of self preservation. It kicked in very late when she was already desperately poor.
The Bourke girls were always exquisitely dressed and knew how to behave in society. Although they lived in London the family travelled frequently on the Continent, visiting fashionable resorts and staying in houses with elegant gardens. At some point a feeling for flowers and the shapes of gardens grew in her mind but the enigma of how and when flighty, coquettish Norah Bourke underwent this transformation is not resolved. Clearly she learned what was involved very thoroughly. Gardening is not usually a hobby of the young yet Norah Lindsay set out re-make the gardens at Sutton Courtenay right after her marriage at the age of 22 knowing exactly what she wanted to do.
Gertrude Jekyll was very active and influential at that time. Norah read her work and took it all in but then moved on in her own thinking. William Robinson had published his important book about the English flower garden. Ellen Willmott, a notable plantswoman and great horticulturist, was one of her friends, and even gave her specimens from her own garden, an exceptional mark of privilege. One professional recognized another.
Hayward points out that Mrs Lindsay got up at 5 in the morning to go over planting lists with her client’s gardeners and then travelled by bus or train to specialist nurseries to find the material she specified. She could not afford a car. If she appeared to sponge a little on her friends it was out of necessity, not a character defect.
To some extent Norah Lindsay’s work has almost disappeared from view because of its location. The Astors were her clients but Cliveden is not a stop on the standard garden pilgrimage nor are Philip Sassoon’s estates at Port Lympne or Trent Park. Sassoon was one of her anchors. He paid her a generous retaining fee, gave her rooms of her own in his houses, wrote to her often and was always affectionate and loving. Nancy Astor probably had even more money than Sassoon but was a stingy beast in comparison, always carping and complaining about minutiae in the bills.
Norah’s own gardens at Sutton Courtenay were the gold standard. Little she did anywhere else ever surpassed them. Visitors of all kinds recorded their delight and wonder at her inventiveness and craftsmanship.
The Lindsay marriage broke up during the first world war. By 1924 she had two children, no house, and no income. At 52 she had to earn her own living for the first time. Lady Horner, her mother’s friend and a wonderful supporter of Norah, immediately gave her one of her first commissions.
Lawrence Johnston internalized her ideas when he was developing Hidcote Manor, the estate in Gloucestershire bought for him by his mother because he had “weak lungs”. She decreed he needed to live in the country. Hayward points out that Norah’s advice was offered on a friendly basis. He consulted Norah but not in a professional capacity. He never paid her any fees. The fact that Hidcote is formed in a series of garden “rooms” reflects much of the Lindsay ethos. When Johnston bought his estate in Menton, Norah once again was involved in planning the garden. Her “fee” was a luxurious vacation in the South of France lasting for weeks.
Johnston was very friendly with the Hon. William (“Bill”) Barrington, heir to the Beckett estate in Oxfordshire. Barrington was a military man who was happiest when farming and living in the country. He was part of one of the most unusual households in England or anywhere else for that matter, the menage à cinq surrounding Violet Gordon Woodhouse.
Violet (Gwynne) Woodhouse was an exceptional pianist and harpsichordist who would have had an extraordinary professional career in a different epoch. The daughter of one rich man married to another rich man, Gordon Woodhouse, she was not allowed to play in public for money, like Fanny Mendelssohn. Her playing was confined to her own drawing room and carefully selected venues. Within a few years of her marriage she had attracted the undying devotion of three other men beside her husband. They were bound to her almost in perpetuity. Gordon Woodhouse was not only undisturbed by this, he seemed to be proud of it.
Barrington undertook to restore the garden at the Woodhouse estate in Gloucestershire, Nether Lypiatt. Johnston was not too far away and often visited to see how the work progressed and offer suggestions. It is doubtful he was interested in Violet as a person or as a woman. It seems more likely he was very interested in Barrington as a kindred soul and perhaps even emotionally but in such ways did Norah’s influence percolate through society even if she were not directly involved.
It is rare that a reviewer anxiously turns the pages back and forth to chase down a fugitive thought but Allyson Hayward’s work is so fine that it was pleasure to do that. There are numerous illustrations mainly in black and white because of the era in which the photographs were taken. A few panels contrast the old photo with a current one in colour. Some of the restoration is very faithful to the original.
Mrs Lindsay left some writings behind but never published the book she told everyone she was working on. Her pieces in “Country Life” are full of interest, fluent and well written, but the magazines are old now and exceedingly dusty and only the true devotee is going to look them up and learn.